Bowen Greenwood Demonstrates He’s Unfit to be Clerk of the Montana Supreme Court

We warned you. The Missoulian warned you. The Billings Gazette warned you. Retired Montana Supreme Court justices warned you.

Republican operative and current candidate for Secretary of State Bowen Greenwood simply is unfit to hold the office of Clerk of the Montana Supreme Court. He doesn’t understand the duties of the job and worst of all, he doesn’t seem to understand that the power of the judiciary depends on the belief that the courts operate in an unbiased fashion.

Around 10 this morning, Greenwood posted his take yesterday’s controversial Nunez v. Watchtower decision, in which a unanimous court overturned a lower court ruling against the Jehovah’s Witnesses that demanded the church pay $35 million to a survivor of sexual abuse.

In his commentary on his personal Facebook page, Greenwood, while acknowledging that phone calls can not overturn a decision by the court, encouraged people to call his office to express their opinions and “commiserate with anyone who calls to express outrage.”

While the Court’s decision was surprising—enough that I read the decision last night when I got home to try to understand the legal reasoning—Greenwood’s criticism of the decision and solicitation of feedback is absolutely inappropriate given his position as Clerk of the Supreme Court.

It’s worth noting from the outset that Greenwood has neither the legal background nor knowledge to question a decision, especially one that was reached unanimously by a Court that often disagrees.

And that’s why the Clerk’s role isn’t to offer hot takes on decisions; it is to receive paperwork, maintain records, and ensure that the public can read the opinions of the judges.

Just as it would be inappropriate for one of the justices or a member of the judicial staff to have posted this kind of commentary, it was inappropriate for Greenwood. The public is owned unbiased court administration, and the court that Greenwood works for—the Montana Supreme Court—is owed professional deference.

Greenwood has every right to have an opinion, but his job demands that he not express one that can be seen as partial or partisan. It doesn’t matter that he’s an elected official or a partisan official. Montana has a long history of allowing voters to elect essentially administrative staff and have party information about those staff. That does not mean the administration of the role is partisan.

It also doesn’t matter that Greenwood posted his on his personal Facebook page. his was the excuse he used when he got called on commenting in even more pointed, disparaging terms about the decision-of-the-court-he-works-for in Espinoza, the crucial and controversial case about whether the legislature can divert your tax money to private, religious schools. It was the legitimate worry before the election when Republicans were promising that Greenwood would reach out to conservative groups to encourage them to submit briefs before the Court.

Again, it would not be an excuse for a non-elected court staff member–or a Justice–to say, “case commentary is OK so long as it’s my PERSONAL account!”

This job demand discretion. It demands professionalism. Most of all, it demands respect for the idea that the administration of justice will be impartial.

It’s just more evidence that Greenwood never understood—and never really wanted—this job, a position he has seen from the beginning as a stepping stone for a bid to become Secretary of State. And that’s perhaps the final irony of this situation: Greenwood is abusing his role as Clerk of the Supreme Court sewing havoc on a largely ministerial role with bizarre commentary that no one asked for. One wonders at this rate whether he’ll soon be sending out mass e-mails about Israel and Palestine from his state account.

And it’s evidence that the Gianforte brand of the Republican party is anti-civic institutions both in ideology and practice, and they are committed to degrading the institutions of civic life through their corrosive, reckless presence inside them.

Greenwood was wrong: wrong to make this post, wrong to solicit calls where he will continue to express his opinion about the case, and wrong about the responsibilities of his office. Haven’t we all had enough of Republican officials hell-bent on destroying the operation of our government through their malice and misunderstanding?

*Incidentally, if someone can find a Facebook post encouraging people to call the Clerk of the Supreme Court other than the one written by Greenwood himself, please send it to me. I can’t find one.

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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Leave a Reply to Charlie Donnes Cancel reply

  
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  • Hi Don, this is a great example of why the position of Clerk of the Supreme Court should be a non-partisan position. Greenwood beat out Rex Renk for the job on a purely partisan vote. Rex was the long time chief deputy to the previous clerk, Ed Smith, and was exceptional at his job. Now Greenwood is running for some other office and Rex is gone.
    It’s a damn shame for the citizens of Montana.

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